Nobody could tell a story about BC’s bygone days better than Bill Barlee. Probably the province’s best-known popular historian, he imparted the magic of the past into everything he said or wrote.
Barlee, who died June 14 in Victoria at age 80, was an author, TV host, newspaper publisher, politician, mine owner, teacher, collector, museum curator — and an inspiration to other history buffs, including me.
His books went through numerous printings and his TV show Gold Trails and Ghost Towns — wherein he regaled viewers with stories of the old west, illustrated with artifacts from his massive collection — ran for 10 years and still shows up in reruns.
Born in Grand Forks and raised in Rossland, Barlee’s fascination with earlier times began during boyhood visits to the Boundary boomtown of Cascade City, where his grandfather ran a store for almost 50 years, and ultimately bought most of the other buildings.
“A lot were abandoned,” Barlee told me in 2000, “and I found it absolutely intriguing to walk through them and look at the merchandise that had been left behind.
“Ten-gallon hats, pitcher and basin sets, rolltop desks — it was all covered in dust and cobwebs, and I thought God, that’s interesting. You walk up the main street and all you hear is the echo of your footsteps on the boardwalk.”
He taught high school in Trail and Penticton, and then in 1969 left his secure job to launch a quarterly magazine, Canada West. It started with seven subscribers, but through word-of-mouth, grew to over 4,000. Readers appreciated his love of history, romantic prose and charming style. He wrote most of the stories, did his own typesetting, and carried only a few classified ads. (He also refused US subscriptions, claiming Americans were looting Canadian heritage sites.) Barlee sold the magazine after seven years, only to buy it back, but it soon folded. Back issues are highly collectible.
His greatest ambition was to save Sandon, mining capital of the Silvery Slocan, whose ghostly atmosphere cast an unbreakable spell on him. In 1970, readers told him the old Virginia Block was being demolished, so he went to check it out.
“I had to make a decision,” he wrote. “I could drive out of there and never go back, and it wouldn’t cost me a penny. Or I could stop the destruction and bring the old town back to something like it was before. I decided that I had to try to save it.”
Barlee bought the building and formed a company to turn Sandon into a living ghost town. But lack of investors, plus heavy snow that collapsed the Virginia’s roof, derailed his plans. Years later, as BC’s tourism minister, he earmarked money to construct replica buildings, but this time a narrow election loss kiboshed things. (Three half-completed shells remain standing.)
He was still selling Sandon’s restoration as an economic saviour for the region when he ran for federal office in 2000 but by then was ridiculed for it, and finished a distant second.
During that campaign, I had the pleasure of seeing him tell treasure stories to a small group in Castlegar, and even got to carry his strongbox of artifacts. He was spellbinding.
Detractors, though, muttered privately that he stole things, or fleeced them from naive owners. He would have been deeply hurt by such accusations, for he prided himself on high ethical standards.
Some of his stories should, however, be taken with plenty of salt. While Barlee was a straight-shooter, the old-timers who provided him with material weren’t always above exaggerating.
You will search in vain for footnotes or bibliographies in his books, but few have ever written so evocatively about the old west. (One pale imitator shamelessly plagiarized Barlee’s entire book on Washington ghost towns.)
Failing health ended Barlee’s public engagements in recent years and also prevented him from completing his final book. Regrettably, we didn’t get an autobiography out of him either.
He was interested in just about every corner of Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest, but pressed to name his favourite region, replied: “British Columbia has such a fascinating history. You can look at the Boundary, the Similkameen, the Cariboo. The whole province is really quite riveting. But if I had to be restricted, if they said you only have one choice, I would say West Kootenay.”
I’m forever grateful I got to meet him. He casts a long shadow over those of us similarly preoccupied with this province’s past.
Greg Nesteroff is a reporter at the Star. He can be reached at email@example.com